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Not-so-pretty picture of heralded Mt. Fuji

Its foot is awash in trash. The problem could set back hopes of a World Heritage designation.

June 10, 2007|Carl Freire | Associated Press

FUJIKAWAGUCHI, JAPAN — If you look up from the forests at the foot of Japan's Mt. Fuji, the volcano's graceful slopes rise into the distance and peak in a nearly symmetrical, snowcapped cone.

If you look down in the forests, however, you see something much less elegant: trash. Lots of it. Just below the surface of leaves and topsoil are discarded microwave ovens, construction debris, broken office furniture, even rusting refrigerators.

Mt. Fuji, the pride of the nation and symbol of the Japanese soul, is a huge garbage dump.

"We've found everything from household trash to broken TV sets and other appliances," said Mayumi Wakamura, who heads periodic cleanups of the mountain. "Sometimes we find hazardous materials like leaky old car batteries."

Nobody knows how much trash is buried on Fuji, but Wakamura's Fujisan Club says it collected 187,000 pounds of illegally dumped garbage from the mountain's slopes in the 12 months through March.

Fuji's garbage problem is a potent symbol of the general environmental destruction wrought by decades of industrialization in a nation with one of the highest population densities on Earth.

The sorry state of Japan's most-heralded mountain could also be a stumbling block in the country's campaign to get the United Nations to list Fuji as a World Heritage site.

In the mid-1990s, activists and local officials asked officials from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to evaluate informally Fuji's chances for joining the list, said Fujisan Club official Naoko Aoki.

" 'Not good' was the answer, and trash management was one of the reasons," she said.

That spurred some Japanese to action. The Fujisan Club -- "Fuji-san" is what the Japanese call the mountain -- was formed in 1998 and has about 1,100 members. The group organizes regular, all-day cleanups of the mountain.

Fuji's trash ills run deep.

About 200,000 Japanese and foreign tourists climb the 12,388-foot mountain every year, and many have found foul toilets at way stations and garbage scattered along the paths.

Government officials and activists agree the problems along the paths are now largely under control. The real problem, they say, is the trash dumped around the foot of the mountain by businesses and nearby residents.

On a recent cleanup at the bottom of Fuji, the only visible garbage was the odd spray can or plastic bag. But when volunteers cleared away leaves and topsoil, some were shocked.

"I came here thinking we'd see bits of trash just lying around that we could easily pick up," said software developer Koji Nonaka, 43. "But they say that some of this stuff we got today had been there for 20 or 30 years. We really had to dig to get it out."

All told, the day's digging yielded more than 3 tons of garbage, including corrugated tin roofing and other materials that plainly came from a construction site, dilapidated office furniture and even a garbage can.

The illegal dumping is hard to stop.

"It's pretty easy for someone to come and dump trash on the roadside without being seen," said Fujisan Club official Eishiro Sato.

Illegal dumpers are trying to avoid Japan's hefty garbage collection fees, he said. Throwing out an appliance such as a refrigerator, say, can cost about $60, while businesses have to pay for all of their trash pickups.

Local governments have arranged for special patrols and set up surveillance cameras. But education may be the key, some say.

Despite the trash woes, Japan is stepping up its campaign to get Fuji on the UNESCO list.

In January, the government announced it was adding Fuji to the list of tentative Japanese candidates for the World Heritage Committee's consideration at a meeting this month in New Zealand.

Both UNESCO and government officials agree trash at the mountain will not decide Fuji's status. The key issue is how unique a place is.

Long a site of worship and the subject of poetry and paintings -- perhaps best exemplified by Katsushika Hokusai's famous 19th century woodblock print "Great Wave Off Kanagawa" -- Fuji has a prominent place in Japanese culture that gives it the uniqueness sought by UNESCO, government officials say.

For volunteers such as Shinichiro Hazama, a 20-year-old university student, that prospect gives the cleanup an extra degree of urgency.

"Becoming a cultural property would make Mt. Fuji a symbol of Japanese culture around the world. I'd hate for people to see the trash around here and think it means that Japan is a culture of garbage," he said.

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